In the latest in a series of politically-motivated attacks on academics, students and artists, the education minister, Gavin Williamson, has proposed cutting funding to the Arts and Humanities in the UK Higher Education sector by 50%. If their plan goes ahead, the Tories will cut some £19 million in spending on subjects that do not count as ‘strategic priorities’, such as music, drama, and archaeology. These cuts will lead to the closure of arts departments across the country, resulting in further job losses at a time when, due to the incompetence and cruelty of this Tory government, many are already facing unemployment and hardship. Furthermore, the cuts will disproportionately affect those from poorer backgrounds, since higher education institutions will inevitably raise tuition fees to cover the deficit (estimated at around £2,700 per student).
These cuts are politically motivated; the latest step in the commodification of higher education, and the eradication of ideological opposition to neo-liberalism across the country (in September 2020, the UK government introduced legislation categorising anti-capitalist beliefs as a form of extremism, and forbidding teachers in England from using materials from anti-capitalist organisations in the classroom). The Solidarity Federation Education Union (SFEU) opposes these cuts, not only to defend jobs and the right of everyone to acquire an education, but also to resist the Tories’ neo-liberal project of ridding the education sector of so-called ‘unprofitable’ subjects and progressive values. As anarchosyndicalists, we believe that the best way to resist these cuts is through direct action and the collective power of workers: these are the tactics that the SFEU applies.
The Bristol University rent strike has been ongoing now for just over 4 months, and I’ve been helping as one of the organisers for about the same amount of time. The strike has been an amazing success in some ways, from getting over 1000 sign ups before the first payment was due, to the extensive rent rebates we’ve won for students, some of whom will have saved over 25% of the rent for the year, and we aim to win back more. However, the strike has been unable to secure its most radical demand for a 30% rent reduction for all students in university owned accommodation, and I think there are lessons to be learnt for others wanting to organise an action such as this in the future.
First I want to give some background as to why the strike began in the first place, and how it was initially conceived and organised.
Students like myself came to university in September with knowledge that our academic and social lives were going to be disrupted somewhat, but the expectation given to us by the University that our courses would be world class, ‘blended’ learning experiences, was a lie. Staff had not been given the time and resources to properly prepare for the new term, as they were having to almost double their work through preparing in person and online content, rather than the University simply giving them more time and more staff to support them, as well as just committing to being online only. This would’ve given students a much better and safer experience. But when universities are run like private businesses, these are not their concerns. Universities get significant amounts of revenue from rent payments, and some accommodations will still need payments to be made on them by the University, so there was no way that they would risk students choosing to stay at home to study until the situation was safer, and as a result, we all flocked to our halls.
Student accomodations quickly became Covid hotspots, which was inevitable even if students strictly kept to their new social bubbles (an incredibly unrealistic expectation). Bristol skyrocketed in cases when it had been relatively untouched by Covid compared to some parts of the country. This isn’t the fault of students breaking the rules and being a nuisance in local communities, it’s the fault of the government and universities being driven by the need to get students in accommodation and paying rent.
The strike formed organically from people who could see just how much of a disaster the start of term had been. We knew why the University wanted us there, and we knew that we could organise it with relative ease whilst hitting them where it hurts. The parasitic nature of landlordism means that once you withhold your rent en masse, they’re suddenly struggling to survive, so it gives you significant leverage over them. This is the power of a rent strike.
We first met to discuss the strike only 10 days before the first rent payment was due, and only about 7-8 days before people had to cancel any payments that had been prepared, and so there was little time to establish any formal structure to the organisation of the strike. Everything had to be done quickly and by whoever could do it. This had its initial benefits, including allowing us to be flexible in those 10 days, as well as the fact that there for no power relations created through any formal structures; however, this quickly developed into a situation where a small selection of people did lots of work and knew what was going on with the strike, whilst the vast majority of people involved or signed up slowly drifted away from any organisational roles. This, coupled with lockdowns and small rent rebates has meant that the initial enthusiasm and momentum of the rent strike has faded significantly. This draws me to my first takeaway from helping to organise this strike; it is vital that members feel like they’re part of a whole, and that they’re engaged in the struggle, otherwise it becomes all to easy for people to drop off because they feel like they can’t, or don’t want to, contribute. It’s hard to know a good solution to this issue, especially when the powers you’re up against will throw everything they can at strikes to break up any sense of collective solidarity. Bristol University has done this through threatening emails, and worst of all, through attempting to create a divide between students by threatening to take students’ bursaries away if they were on strike.
To do this is no easy task, and so I won’t attempt to provide a comprehensive solution, but having organisational structures, that are designed to be inclusive and non-hierarchical, can benefit significantly, as they ensure that there are clear ways to get involved, and through democratic processes, they encourage people to understand their role as part of a collective struggle.
These rent strikes can’t win on the backs of students alone however. It is vital that students reach out to university staff of all kinds and vice versa. Workers in academia, and those that support students and universities (admin staff, wellbeing/academic support, cleaners/maintenance staff, etc.), are all in incredibly precarious positions, thanks to the funding model of our universities, and due to the nature of markets in general; yet there is a perception amongst students that staff are all in privileged positions and that their struggles are separate to those of students. This was exemplified greatly by the animosity towards the UCU strikes in 2019/20 from students, many of which felt that the strikes meant they weren’t getting their money’s worth from their degree, rather than realising that if university staff are getting paid more and have less of a workload, they’ll have a better uni experience, and by thinking of higher education in terms of getting their money’s worth, students are playing into the Tories’ hands on marketisation. The UCU strike and the rent strikes have both demonstrated the importance of solidarity between both students and staff, and they both demonstrate how uni managements will try to turn the groups against each other. In our meetings with management, they have implied that our victories will inevitably lead to harm to staff, which is not true when you consider the vast cash reserves the uni has accumulated over the years, but Bristol UCU for their part have been very helpful in showing their solidarity with the rent strike in meetings with us. Both of these struggles show the need in education for an organisation where all staff groups, and students, are joined together so they can fight together against the forces of marketisation in education.
It’ll take more than rent strikes to bring down marketised education in the UK, but they’re a good start along with UCU strikes and other forms of organising and direct action. The only way we could really take on the state in this respect, is if we can ignite a sense of solidarity between staff and students in the same vein as the 2010 tuition fee protests, although even these mass protests failed to prevent the rise of tuition fees. To fight against the forces of the market, you must refuse to participate, through actions such as rent strikes and industrial action, and so to create a coordinated general strike in education could really make a difference.
I, and other strike organisers in Bristol, have been thinking how we can turn the rent strike from an action that only has limited effects for this cohort for students, into a more long term transformational movement. We’ve begun to establish a permanent student tenants union in Bristol that can work alongside organisations like ACORN Bristol to help protect student tenants, and I’ve also been considering getting some political education sessions going for people that are interested. Students who’ve been participating in these rent strikes across the country should also look to join radical grassroots organisations and unions such as Solidarity Federation as those in Westminster continue to fail young people. Only direct action can save us now.
For now however, the rent strike continues, and we have some big things planned to get the focus back on our original demands rather than getting lost in negotiating meetings with management. If you’re a student reading this, join your local rent strike for your final rent payment!
With a provisional date set for the gradual reopening of the hospitality sector in UK, now seems a prescient moment to reflect upon the experiences of hospitality staff during the Covid-19 pandemic.
While many staff will feel grateful to have a return date set in their diaries (albeit provisionally), we should reject the much posited idea of a ‘return to normal’. Accepting such a move lets both government and employers – many of whom have behaved disgracefully in the last twelve months – off the hook. While the government’s furlough scheme has ensured hospitality staff have had a source of income and have jobs to return to in May, we should not accept the bare minimum as anywhere close to enough.
For starters, there seems little reason why staff couldn’t have been paid at 100% of their normal monthly pay, as opposed to the 80% the scheme currently offers. Given the base rate for hospitality is often minimum wage (and even less for those under twenty-one or on apprenticeship wages), arbitrarily cutting 20% of earnings only heaps financial pressure on those already struggling. While work may have stopped temporarily, food, clothes and other basic necessites cost no less, while mortgages and rent to landlords (not known for their compassion in times of crisis) still need to be paid.
Another pitfall of the furlough scheme, which some of my colleagues experienced first hand, is its reliance upon the competence and honesty of employers. Management teams fiddling with staff hours to make meagre savings is not a new phenomenon, but in the context of furlough – where staff pay is already reduced – the practice is even more reprehensible. For example, a staff member with two children will work around child care, so they may do two 10 shifts and one shorter 5 hour shift a week, totalling 25 hours. However, there have been instances of employers underreporting staff hours, so the person working 25 hours in normal times is only paid (again at 80%) for 20. Such discrepancies are not only grossly irresponsible, they hurt workers in an industry already both low-paid and precarious.
Rumours of a second installment of the Chancellor’s ‘Eat out to help out’ scheme will also fill those working in the hospitality sector with a sense of foreboding. While much may have been made of the scheme in August – the press and goverment blustered plenty of platitudes about how it would ‘restart’ the economy – the reality for those working it was hellish. While the big chains made plenty of lip-service about staff health and safety being a priority during the pandemic, this sits in stark contrast to what myself and many colleagues experienced: management teams cannot claim to value the wellbeing of staff while they continue to cut corners, solely to maximise profiits for unacountable CEOs and board members. While the UK’s first lockdown was undoubtedly lifted too soon, it is not within the remit of this article to offer analysis of every (of the many) government failures from during the last 12 months.
Hospitality businesses reopened last July under the assurance they would implement measures to ensure safe social distancing – this included things like reduced capacity and introducing track and trace forms for customers. While the nature of work in the industry does make social distancing nigh on impossible at times (especially for those of us working in already cramped kitchens), it was telling just how quickly senior management teams abondoned all pretense of safety once ‘Eat out to help out’ was launched. Cramming in table upon table of guests would be negligent behaviour at any juncture, but during a pandemic there is no justification.
Another trend prevelant throughout the scheme was staff sickness, owing to overwork and understaffing. While anyone who has ever worked a bar or restaurant job knows there will be certain periods in a week (often a Friday and Saturday) where you will be busy, staff being worked at an unrelenting pace – there were a couple of days were staff were forced to go without breaks – for a month is not healthy.
Management machinations did not stop at understaffing and overworking during ‘Eat out to help out’. As the months progressed (and Covid cases rose), more and more staff had to take time off to self-isolate. While frustrating, the bosses did at least attempt to maintain a semblance of transparency at first by keeping staff informed about self isolations. Such transparency soon vanished however, when the head chef tested positive for Covid. Despite displaying symptoms (a dry cough and fatigue), the person in question filled in the daily Covid check (for which normal staff were routinely badgered) online declaring himself fit for work and attended work on at least two separate occasions. Once the postive test had been shared with kitchen staff, people were both upset and angry. A number of staff had been in close contact with the head chef – who had insisted he was fine – so were justifiably concerned they could have contracted Covid themselves. Rather than condemning the head chef’s behaviour and allowing other staff to self isolate, which would have been the correct procedure, management instead decided to close ranks and add further deceit to the situtation: at a gathering of the kitchen team, we were informed not to seek Covid tests and to carry on as normal, as well as being told the head chef had followed the ‘correct protocols’. Such blatant gaslighting would have been deceitful enough, but kitchen staff were also told not to share the news of the head chef’s positive test, as this could cause ‘disruption to the business’. While the above is just one example in one industry, it is indicative of a wider issue present throughout the pandemic: namely the interests of Capital and its lackeys taking precedent over the safety and wellbeing of the working class. Data on Covid deaths in the UK from last year evidences this point, showing those working in precarious industries – including chefs – far more likely to die from Covid than the general population.
What can be done? In short: educate, agitate, and (most importantly) organise. We have to remember we only have each other, and only by fighting against bosses’ dirty tricks will we be successful in improving our lives. Platitudes about ‘a return to normal’ also delibrately miscontrue the fact life was miserable for those working in precarious industries well before Covid. Shorter working weeks with no loss of earnings, better wages for all and vastly improved sick and holiday pay should be our minimum demands. It will not come through pandering to politicans, of social democratic stripes or otherwise. Indeed, the Labour Party seems more interested echoing far-right talking points about ‘British interests’ and cosying up to Capital, than it does in fighting for reduced working hours and better workplace protections.
Direct action and revolutionary trade unions will deliver far more change than pinning our hopes on electoralism. Even doing small things like chatting to coworkers about their frustrations/concerns is a good starting point. Our own list of pandemic demands, including free PPE and 25 hour working weeks with no reduction in pay, gives a snapshot of the things we should be fighting for. Hospitality staff, like workers in so many industries, have been treated as disposable by both bosses and the State during the pandemic of the last year (and beforehand). No more. We should use our rage to built a better world.